Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Fiction in Three Acts

In November of last year, as anyone who interacts with me for longer than a couple hours knows, I attended the La Jolla Writers Conference. It was my second year attending, and I fully intend to attend every year until I achieve a level of success that warrants an invitation to be one of its presenters. When that happens, I'll gladly contribute my time, energy, and *cough* wisdom in the pay it forward spirit with which this conference was founded.

In that same spirit, I'd like to use this blog to share some of the nuggets gathered from its generous presenters, wildly successful authors who don't have a problem rubbing elbows with people like me.*

The following is taken from a presentation by Stephen J. Cannell. He said the secret to the success of his mystery/thriller novels is that he ensures his story arc follows the pattern of a three act play.

From Wikipedia ...

Three Act Play

In a three act play, each act usually has a different tone to it. The most commonly used, but not always, is the first act having a lot of introductory elements, the second act can usually be the darkest with the antagonists having a greater encompass, while the third act is the resolution and the protagonists prevailing. There is an age-old saying that "the second act is the best", owing to the fact of it being in between a starting and ending act and thus being able to delve deeper into more of the meat of the story since it doesn't need to have as prominent introductory or resolutive portions. Of course this isn't always so since a third act or even a first act can have the common second act characteristics, but the most used is that type of structure.

Act One

Act I comprises the first quarter of the screenplay. (For a two hour movie, Act I would last approximately 30 minutes.)

What happens in Act I?

Exposition--The part of a story that introduces the characters, shows some of their interrelationships, and places them within a time and place. This part of the story introduces the main character, the dramatic premise, and the dramatic situation.

Inciting Incident--an event that sets the plot of the film in motion. It occurs approximately halfway through the first act.

Act Two

Act II comprises the next two quarters of the film.

What happens in Act II (Confrontation)?

Obstacles--In the second act, the main character encounters obstacle after obstacle that prevent him from achieving his dramatic need.

First Culmination--a point just before the halfway point of the film where the main character seems close to achieving his or her goal/objective. Then, everything falls apart, leading to the midpoint.

Midpoint--a point approximately halfway through the film where the main character reaches his/her lowest point and seems farthest from fulfilling the dramatic need or objective.

Act Three

Act III comprises the final quarter of the film.

What happens in Act III (Resolution)?

Climax (Second Culmination)--The point at which the plot reaches its maximum tension and the forces in opposition confront each other at a peak of physical or emotional action.

Denouement--The brief period of calm at the end of a film where a state of equilibrium returns.

Will & I sat at a greasy spoon a day later picking apart our already-published work to see if and how it fit this structure. While it's not a set-in-stone formula, I think it has its merits both for an overall story arc and for an isolated sex scene. We spent far more time, though, staging the final chapters of our next release, Spring Training. I think it's a better book as a result. *tips hat* Thank you, Stephen J. Cannell.

Next, The Psychology of Character Motivation.


* Hey, I said I wasn't going to "participate" on her blog ... not that I wasn't going to "read" it. But, twisting words seems to be a talent of hers. Ironically, it's also what gets her knickers in a twist when someone else does it. Ah, hypocrisy. It's everywhere. Just like the authors who have no problem attending workshops and picking the brains of those who actually have some of the experiences about which they're writing -- then looking down their noses at same. *snort* To them, I say: Lead, follow, or get the fuck out of my way.

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